Five films in, Peter Jackson’s version of Middle-earth is still a vibrant realization of what fantasy is meant to invoke. Take Lake-town, a dilapidated trading hub our hero Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and his 13 dwarven companions are smuggled into midway through The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Lake-town may be mired in squalor, filth, and fish-guts, but you’d have a hard time not wanting to take an extended vacation amid its icy docks and fishing boats caught perpetually in the magic hour of sunset.
Make no mistake, this second film in The Hobbit trilogy, prequel to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, suffers from Jackson’s trademark pacing issues caused by taking on too much material. The novel on which it’s based was a fairly straight-forward fantasy in which Bilbo and his companions journeyed to retake a dwarven kingdom under a mountain from the clutches of a dragon named Smaug. It was written for children and could be finished in a day or two by an avid reader, and certainly didn’t have enough material for an epic movie trilogy. Go in expecting the film to closely follow the book and you’ll be sorely disappointed.
What you can expect is a much tighter storytelling experience than in last year’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. At two hours, 41 minutes, Smaug clocks in nearly an hour shorter than the average Middle-earth entry, yet still manages to pack in as many exotic locales and as much action as the others.
In the biggest departure from the novel, Legolas (Orlando Bloom), elf prince from Lord of the Rings, makes an extended appearance in a love triangle with his captain of the guard, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). It’s folded neatly into the plot, in that it’s mainly developed through action sequences, and gives Legolas some missing depth. It works because Lilly, who you may recognize from the TV series Lost, was born to star in this kind of film. Between Bloom and Lilly, Smaug is rife with smart, elegantly choreographed fight scenes, including a three-way battle between elf, dwarf, and evil orc that moves quickly along (and in) raging, whitewater rapids.
Other action sequences are similarly superb, in large part because of the creature design. Guillermo del Toro, the director of Pacific Rim and Pan’s Labyrinth, was originally signed to direct the Hobbit trilogy. His involvement fell through, but his unique design touches survive into the films: an assault by terrifying, giant, tree spiders stands out. If you suffer from arachnophobia, welcome to your new least favorite movie. The titular dragon, Smaug (voiced and motion-captured by Benedict Cumberbatch), and the mountains of gold he guards underneath the Lonely Mountain are similarly awe-inspiring sights to behold.
If you watch any Australian and New Zealand programming (where Jackson grew up filmmaking), you’ll realize that audiences Down Under really enjoy their melodrama. In fact, the United States is one of the few cultures that doesn’t value melodrama very highly. We prefer gritty, dramatic realism. Middle-earth is still a world in which falling in love means the object of your desire is highlighted by an angelic, white aura as she smiles shyly at you in slow-motion. Making the film’s most dramatic speech means that snow must begin to fall as the music swells. It’s a decidedly operatic affair, but let’s not pretend Jackson’s brand of costume melodrama isn’t wholly addictive.
The film’s greatest strength lies in Middle-earth itself. From sweeping mountain vistas to fields of flowers buzzing with bees, from the ripple of wind along Mirkwood’s Autumnal treetops to the warm glow of torches peeking out from Lake-town’s cold, misty grime, this is fantasy tourism at its best. Smaug captures the essence of places that don’t exist, but you’ll dearly wish did.
Fantasy as a genre may be the purest form of escape. Action movies happen in skyscrapers and in New York and on foreign soil. Science-fiction is most often speculation on what one day might be. Fantasy creates what never was and makes it vital. As an escape, as a pure flight of fancy, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a resounding success and a tremendous experience on the big-screen, 3D or otherwise. It’s rated PG-13 for fantasy violence and frightening images. Or R for arachnophobics.